The Cost of a Relationship: U.S. Complicity in Saudi’s Controversial War

By: Alexander Yacoubian, Columnist 

The United States routinely gives Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a carte blanche to do whatever it pleases in the region at the expense of human rights and civil liberties. Saudi Arabia’s assassination of Jamal Kashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist, earlier this month in Turkey is the latest and most brazen of Salman’s attempts to consolidate his domestic and regional authority since gaining de-facto power in 2015. President Trump responded “softly” to these allegations stating that he “does not like the concept” of halting a $110 billion arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.[i] The destination of these billions of dollars worth of weapons, at a minimum, will lead to U.S. complicity in war crimes and cause its strategy to counter Iran to fail. To avoid a foreign policy disaster, the U.S. should push Saudi Arabia to end its campaign in Yemen and cease widespread domestic human rights abuses.

The Saudis have used U.S. weapons to support a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. UN accusations leveled against the Saudi-led coalition include gross human rights violations like killing thousands of civilians, torturing detainees, raping civilians, and using child soldiers.[ii] In addition, the coalition’s restrictions on air and sea transportation to Hodeidah, the country’s biggest Red Sea port, prevent food and critical humanitarian aid from reaching civilians.[iii] Consequently, 12 million Yemenis face the world’s worst famine in 100 years if the intense fighting around Hodeidah does not relent.[iv] However, similar to the lax response to the assassination allegations, the United States continues to give Salman and the Saudis a free reign in Yemen despite the growing humanitarian disaster. In fact, reports tying U.S. bombs to civilian deaths, including a recent Saudi attack on a school bus that killed 40 children, only increase as American-made weapons continue to flow into Yemen.[v] Yet, the United States claims that the Saudi-led coalition has “improved” its targeting practices throughout the conflict, allowing the U.S. to sell billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis.[vi] The result is American complicity in future attacks and war crimes.

Furthermore, the war fails to achieve the United States’ goal of countering Iran in the Middle East. Instead, the war foments an insurgency that relies more on Iran and arms civilians against U.S. partners.[vii] The Houthi insurgency began as an uprising against the Yemeni government due to local grievances. However, Saudi Arabia’s intervention forced the Houthis to elicit significant aid from Iran, which quickly turned the conflict into a proxy war. Consequently, Tehran gained a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula, allowing the Islamic Republic to station ballistic missiles in Yemen used for Houthi attacks into neighboring Saudi Arabia.[viii]

The Saudi military’s campaign in Yemen is hardly the first instance of its disregard for human rights. Mohammed bin Salman has a long track record of brutal activities to consolidate his authority both domestically and regionally. After his ascent to power, Salman conducted a campaign to purge his political opponents and imprisoned dozens of journalists and human rights activists.[ix] In addition, the execution rate in Saudi Arabia skyrocketed as Saudi authorities used the death penalty to punish Shi’a critics.[x] Salman also detained and held captive Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, before forcing his resignation on live television. Salman deemed Hariri as a threat because of his dealings with Iranian-backed Hezbollah and staged the resignation to force Lebanon to realign with Saudi interests.[xi]

It is time for the U.S. to end its casual support of a war that has turned into a strategic blunder and a humanitarian disaster.[xii] Moreover, the U.S. should push for an immediate ceasefire and the reopening of vital ports, including Hodeidah, to allow urgent humanitarian aid to reach civilians.[xiii] The Trump administration should stop appeasing allies and, instead, support the ongoing efforts of UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to broker a peace deal between the two sides.[xiv] In the interim, Congress should put a freeze on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until an independent and impartial investigation determines the extent of Saudi human rights violations in Yemen.

Just as Salman and Saudi Arabia have become infamous for their human rights record, the U.S. has the same notoriety for ignoring their abuses. It is time the Trump administration holds the Saudis more accountable for their actions both at home and abroad. Saudi Arabia represents a vital economic and counterterrorism partner for the U.S., and it would be foolish to suggest anything close to severing relations with the Kingdom. However, the recent assassination allegations give the United States a window to reign in Salman and his draconian policies. The U.S. funds 60% of the Saudi’s military expenses; thus the potential to annul the $110 billion arms deal gives the U.S. exceptional leverage that should be used to compel better human rights practices from the Saudi government.[xv] The United States needs Saudi Arabia as a partner, but it is now time to push them to be a more responsible one.













[i] Jeremy Diamond and Barbara Starr, “Trump’s $110 billion Saudi arms deal has only earned $14.5 billion so far,” CNN, October 13, 2018.

[ii] “Yemen: United Nations Experts point to possible war crimes by parties to the conflict,” UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, August 28, 2018.

[iii] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “War Crimes Report on Yemen Accuses Saudi Arabia and U.A.E,” New York Times, August 28, 2018.

[iv] Hillary Clarke, “Twelve million face famine in Yemen if bombs don’t stop, WFP warns,” CNN, October 16, 2018. Include link if one exists

[v] Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, and Laura Smith-Spark, “Made in America,” CNN.

[vi] “Hiding Behind the Coalition,” Human Rights Watch, August 24, 2018.

[vii] Daniel Byman, “How the U.S. is Empowering Iran in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, July 26, 2018.

[viii] Phil Stewart, “In first, U.S. presents its evidence of Iran weaponry from Yemen,” Reuters, December 14, 2017.

[ix] Rodney Dixon, “The world can no longer ignore Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses,” The Guardian, October 15, 2018.

[x] “Mohammed bin Salman: The dark side of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince,” Al Jazeera, October 19, 2018.

[xi] Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib, “Why Saad Hariri Had That Strange Sojourn in Saudi Arabia,” New York Times, December 24, 2017.

[xii] Daniel Byman, “How the U.S. is Empowering Iran in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, July 26, 2018.

[xiii] David Miliband, “Airstrikes and starving children: It’s time the US did something about the horrors in Yemen,” CNN, September 25, 2018.

[xiv] Daniel Byman, “How the U.S. is Empowering Iran in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, July 26, 2018.

[xv] Alex de Waal, “What Happens if Mass Starvation takes Hold in Yemen,” New York Times, June 14, 2018.

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